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Culture Faces Bleak Times

THE end of the communist system is changing all aspects of life for east Europeans.

Most of these changes, including a painful economic transition, hold promise of something better to come. Few regret the changes overall to a new way of life. But there is one area where the transition is a mixed blessing: culture.

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The ideological shackles have gone - but so too the lavish state subsidies which, for all the political constraints, taboos, and periodic crackdowns, enabled culture to preserve a lively presence in most parts of the former communist domain.

The subsidies were intended to further government ideological purposes and nothing else. But they provided an unintended cloak under which "suspect" theaters or publishing houses managed to keep themselves in business. They didn't have to worry about costs; and the record is full of conformist writers, publishers, dramatists, theater managers, and film directors who printed or produced ideas quite contrary to what the authorities had in mind.

Now all this is changing as the laws of the market are put in place, and the arts, along with state economic enterprises, lose their subsidies. The impact is already sadly apparent in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.

Nowhere was the subsidy so skillfully exploited by an incipient political opposition than in Poland, where no fewer than 65 theater companies and groups benefited from government handouts. Many were not good enough to merit survival in an open market. But the subsidies enabled some notable theaters to keep themselves alive. The same applied in film, with the state funding studios and owning more than 1,000 cinemas where seats cost next to nothing.

But what many recall as the "golden years" in their theater or movie-making are over. The new, democratic governments broadly represent conservative, center, and center-right opinion, disinclined to vote public funds for support of the arts. All also have dire economic difficulties, which must determine priorities for any foreseeable future - and the arts are not among them.

Directors, managers, and publishers must find much of the money they need before state help will be considered. Hard economic criteria now decide whether a book - however good - can be published, a play staged, or a film made. In Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, this shift has closed theaters and film studios, throwing thousands out of work, bankrupting publishers, and leaving writers and other artists virtually "on the rocks."

A well-known Hungarian writer, Peter Nados, recently won a substantial Austrian literary award. "It was a godsend," he said. "My own publishing house has gone bust owing me money on my last book, and nobody else wants to look at my new one because Hungarians are no longer buying books."

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At the Czechoslovak Barandov state film studios, a director said the end of subsidies "means more or less the collapse of culture. The market is now deciding everything, and in this country we don't yet know how to market."

That may be only temporary, while the Czechs and others learn to market and governments educate themselves in the kind of art funding practiced by many Western countries.

In the meantime, bleak times seem to be ahead for east European culture. And it is going to be a long time before Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs, for example, repeat those splendid "new waves" in moviemaking which, through the 1950s-'70s, made cinema history - even under communism.

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